Where was God when millions died of the coronavirus?

Perhaps the question that most troubled my children as we toured a continent-wide genocide was the most obvious: How did God watch all this in silence?

JONA LAKS, survivor of Dr. Josef Mengele’s twins experiments, and granddaughter Lee Aldar pass under the notorious Auschwitz death camp gate in January. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
JONA LAKS, survivor of Dr. Josef Mengele’s twins experiments, and granddaughter Lee Aldar pass under the notorious Auschwitz death camp gate in January.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
This April my new book, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, will be published.
The book is the story of how, in 2017, I decided to take my family on a European holiday. But instead of seeing the sights of London or Paris, I took our reluctant and at times complaining children on a harrowing journey though Auschwitz, Treblinka, Warsaw, and many other sites associated with Hitler’s genocidal war against the Jews.
My purpose was to impress upon my children the full horror of the Holocaust, so they would know and remember it deep in their bones.
In the process, my children and I learned a great deal about the scope and nature of the European genocide and the continuing effects of global hatred and antisemitism.
The resulting memoir is a unique blend of travelogue, memoir and history – alternately fascinating, terrifying, frustrating, humorous and tragic.
Perhaps the question that most troubled my children as we toured a continent-wide genocide was the most obvious: How did God watch all this in silence?
If even the stones of the Warsaw Ghetto cried out at the murder of children, and there was no response from God, it follows that God was either dead, no longer imposing His will in human affairs the way He did in the Torah, or angry at the Jews for sin and mollified only by the slaughter of six million of them and the destruction of their culture as part of European society – but no one can figure out why. This is the biggest question surrounding the greatest genocide in the history of the world.
WHILE THE Holocaust is a unique and unprecedented tragedy in world history, to which nothing else can be compared, the same question about God’s silence can be asked about the coronavirus. Where was God when 500,000 people died of COVID-19?
This is an especially relevant question, given that last week was the Sabbath of Remembrance, on which we read of Amalek’s attack against the Jewish people when they emerged from Egypt. Like Amalek, COVID-19 most attacks the weak, the vulnerable and the infirm. We are obligated to annihilate Amalek, to annihilate any enemy that attacks the most defenseless. So why is God allowing the coronavirus?
Jews had three responses to the Holocaust:
1. Abandon God, in the belief that God abandoned man.
2. Submit to the idea that God is always right, and we are always wrong. We brought the destruction on ourselves through – pick your poison – a lack of sufficient piety, a substitution of secularism for faith, a pursuit of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah, or a desire to assimilate among the Germans and cease being Jewish.
3. Engage God, even if it involves expressing righteous indignation. Continue a relationship with God, but one that had substantially changed.
Whereas before, He was God and we were His obedient servants, there was now greater equality in the relationship. We were no longer obedient. Rather, we were furious. We believed in You. We continue to believe in You. So how could You? How could You just watch the crematoria?
We’re not going to simply let You off the hook by pretending You don’t exist. No, You do exist. You are all-powerful. And we are a righteous nation, not to mention the 1.5 million blameless children who were massacred.
So where were You? You told us the righteous would prosper, and yet they were not protected from the Nazis. Is it any wonder people question Your existence and essential goodness, if You do not seemingly live by Your own moral code?
We’re angered and shocked at Your seeming dereliction of responsibility as Creator and Ruler of the universe.
Of all the possible responses, only the last makes any sense to me, and I have dedicated two books to fleshing it out. The first, written while I was rabbi at Oxford University, is called Wrestling with the Divine. The second, penned just a few years ago, is The Fed-Up Man of Faith. Both titles capture the essence of religious righteous indignation in the face of the Holocaust, and the same follows for any cataclysmic event that claims the lives of untold numbers of innocents.
The very name Israel means “one who wrestles with God.” Whereas Islam means to submit, and Christianity, in the words of Kierkegaard, demands “a leap of faith,” Judaism teaches us to challenge and wrestle with the Creator.
After the Holocaust, we remain a people of deep, uncompromising faith. But we are fed up. Fed up with a God whom we love, and to whom we have been particularly devoted, while He has allowed terrible atrocities to befall His people.
And we demand that God correct the injustice, just as we demand that he banish the coronavirus.
We reject the theodicy of the simpleminded and the religiously arrogant who would somehow find divine casual meaning in a terrible catastrophe. There is no conceivable place in the universe where the murder of six million innocent people would make sense. And there is no theology that would somehow find redemption in the coronavirus.
There is no God worthy of the name who could ever wish for such immoral destruction. And there is no sin that could ever be committed that would warrant death by gassing of millions of people. Likewise, there is no sin of which the elderly in the United States, Brazil, and Europe could be guilty that would lend meaning to the vile effects of the coronavirus.
For my son Yosef, even this theological response to the Holocaust was inadequate. The only thing that makes sense is the creation of a Jewish army.
“We need Jews who know how to defend themselves,” he told me after the trip. Last year he moved to Israel to join the IDF.
I responded by telling Yosef he’s right. We cannot rely on faith alone when there are Hitlers in the world. But it is our faith in life and its infinite value that give us the inspiration to fight evil in the first instance.
Likewise, it is my Judaism that prevents me from letting God off the hook for the Holocaust. My faith commands me to put God’s children before God Himself, as every parent would want. The Holocaust gives us a reason to show righteous indignation toward God, but not to abandon Him.
Likewise, our love of life inspires us to create hospitals and search for vaccines to defeat a deadly virus.
My daughter Rochel Leah had a crisis of faith in the killing fields of Europe. Ultimately, she came to terms with God and said she recognized that the Holocaust was not some form of punishment. Rather, she felt that those who continued to believe in God after the Holocaust were forced to alter their theology. “They had to decide God isn’t so powerful, and that morality is in their own hands.”
But after first feeling theologically defeated by the Holocaust, Baba would later embrace the ferocious response of intensifying a defiant faith that would see Judaism flourish against all odds.
I am proud that Rochel Leah is now, along with her husband, a Chabad emissary in Florida, teaching Judaism. She has since achieved a certain social media celebrity as the creator of The Thirsty Souls Series, where she inspires people with life-affirming spirituality, making sure people know God is with us, and teaching Torah to the masses.
FOR US Orthodox Jews whose theology insists on God’s omnipotence, a diminished God who was powerless in the face of the Holocaust was not in the cards. Nor can there be a diminished God in the face of the coronavirus. God is fully and obviously capable of defeating the virus, whether it’s directly or through the agency of heroic medical professionals to minister to the weak and develop a vaccine.
For what is a God who stands powerless in the face of evil, other than pathetic and unworthy of worship? No, God is omnipotent. God is good. And God, therefore, should never have allowed the Holocaust to occur. The same God who destroyed the legions of Pharaoh should have annihilated the Gestapo and the SS before they could annihilate the Jews.
God’s omnipotence obligates Him. If you’re all-powerful, then you have to protect the weak and the vulnerable. God had the same obligation during the Holocaust. We have a right to demand that He uphold the same moral standards that He imposes on His world.
It follows that a global pandemic – while on the one hand wholly different, as it is not an evil caused by human agency, and a virus is, of course, morally blind; but similar in its taking of human life on a vast scale – can be vanquished by God.
We humans must demand of God that it be so.
The coronavirus has killed 500,000 too many. It’s time that God remove this plague from the earth and return us to a world filled with laughter, love and hope.
The writer’s new book, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, will be published on 4 April, 2021, by Wicked Son.